Fighter jets for Kyiv. How long would it take Ukrainian pilots to…

Fighter jets for Kyiv. How long would it take Ukrainian pilots to learn to fight in an F-16

Ukrainian pilots would need at least six months to become familiar with handling an American F-16 aircraft, but this is just one small aspect of a highly complex process in which they have to learn not only how to operate but also how to fight in this type of fighter aircraft, experts say. Amid mounting pressure to supply the Kiev government with fighter jets, the United States and Ukraine are still engaged in talks over the delivery of fighter jets, a moment that could radically change the face of the war in Eastern Europe. Britain and France are also among the countries that have announced their willingness both to deliver high-performance aircraft and to train Ukrainian pilots.

Pressure on Westerners

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called on the Biden Administration to start „today” training Ukrainian pilots to operate F-16 fighter jets, in order to provide Ukraine with these fighters as soon as possible.

The South Carolina senator said Sunday in an interview with ABC that U.S. lawmakers attending the Munich Security Conference were „almost unanimous” in their view that the U.S. should provide training for the F-16s and that he believes President Joe Biden’s decision on the matter is „imminent.”

Graham urged the Democratic administration not to be wary or fearful of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying: „don’t worry about challenging Putin, worry about defeating him.”

The Republican senator’s statements are among the most forthright made by a US official at a time when the Biden administration is under increasing pressure to provide Ukraine with high-performance combat aircraft. After receiving confirmation of deliveries of Leopard 2 and Abrams tanks from Germany and the US, Ukraine has recently renewed its calls for long-range missiles and Western fighter jets, particularly the feared American F-16s. The highly capable fighters have long been on Ukraine’s wish list, but their delivery has been deemed „off limits” by Western allies.

In recent weeks, however, several European and US officials have signalled that the subject of sending fighter jets to Ukraine is no longer off-limits. In January, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said the government in Amsterdam would consider a request to send F-16 aircraft with „an open mind,” adding that „there are no taboos” on military support.

For his part, White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said the US would discuss the idea of giving Ukraine fighter jets „very carefully” with both the government in Kiev and allies. „We have not ruled out any specific system. We’ve tried to tailor our assistance to the phase of the fighting that the Ukrainians are in,” Finer told MSNBC.

The F-16, a fourth-generation supersonic fighter jet, has been a successful export product for the U.S. in recent years, raising the possibility that more countries could join together to give Ukraine F-16 aircraft – a coalition similar to the one that recently decided to give Ukraine German-made Leopard 2 tanks.

Senator Lindsey Graham’s statements were made in this delicate context. But the US congressman is not alone in referring to the need to start training Ukrainian pilots as soon as possible. On the other side of the Atlantic, an adviser to the French defense minister, Sébastien Lecornu, said in late January that France was considering Ukraine’s request to train pilots on fighter jets.

This after Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, in a recent interview with the French daily Le Figaro, asked Paris to help train its pilots on French planes. „I have heard many experts speak highly of French planes and their pilots. Of course, I would be very happy if Ukrainian pilots could be trained to fly French planes and use this experience to ensure victory,” the Kiev official said.

Recall that President Emmanuel Macron announced in January this year that the French air force would switch to a fleet consisting entirely of Rafale jets. According to several sources, this means that older aircraft, such as Mirages 2000, could be available to be offered to Ukraine.

For his part, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has formally asked Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to consider which Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter jets could be supplied to the Ukrainian Air Force, following the announcement that London will offer to train Ukrainian fighter pilots for the first time.

The move to transfer fighter jets doesn’t seem imminent, however, after Sunak said it was intended to serve as a „long-term solution rather than a short-term capability.” But, experts believe, the decision could mark a pivotal moment in the fight against Russia by starting deliveries of high-capacity, Western-made jets.

„The training will ensure that pilots are able to fly sophisticated fighter jets to NATO standards in the future,” Sunak’s office said.

The RAF fighter fleets are made up of Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 aircraft. Experts believe that realistically only Typhoon aircraft could be part of the training considerations for Ukraine, as some are garaged or ready for retirement, while only one UK F-35 squadron has so far been operational. The highly advanced and extremely expensive Lockheed Martin-made F-35 aircraft is used by several US allies, but – at least so far – has not yet been part of a serious discussion for Ukraine.

Ongoing discussions

Will the Americans deliver the famous F-16s to the Kiev government? At the end of January, President Biden seemed to rule out the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine altogether. Asked if he would accept Kiev’s request, the White House leader replied flatly, „No.”

But the situation could change dramatically in the coming period. The US ambassador to the United Nations indicated on Sunday that Team Biden might revise its previous stance of refusing to provide F-16 jets to Ukraine.

„We’re still having discussions on the ground with the Ukrainians,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN, adding that Washington is working „very closely and directly” with Kiev to identify „what their needs are and when they need them.”

Thomas-Greenfield referred to Kiev’s previous requests for weapons, saying it „doesn’t help” if the US provides weapons systems that Ukrainian forces are unable to use and maintain.

„We need to make sure … that they have the training and the ability to use the weapons systems that we provide,” the ambassador said. „Discussions will continue over the coming weeks and months as we determine how best to support them.”

General Christopher Cavoli, head of US European Command, also told congressmen in Washington that providing F-16s to Ukraine, along with drones and long-range missiles, could help Kiev gain advantages over Russian forces.

For its part, Politico reported that a bipartisan group of US lawmakers called on President Biden to send the jets to Kiev because they „could prove decisive in controlling Ukrainian airspace this year.”

Led by Democrat Jared Golden, the five congressmen wrote: „The provision of such aircraft is necessary to help Ukraine protect its airspace, particularly in the face of Russian offensives and given the expected increase in large-scale combat operations… F-16 or similar fourth-generation fighter aircraft would provide Ukraine with a highly mobile platform from which to target Russian air-to-air missiles and drones, to protect Ukrainian ground forces while engaging Russian troops, and to fight Russian aircraft for air superiority.”

Delivering fighter jets to Ukraine, a decision once considered impossible, is therefore in the cards now, and the United States could announce the transfer of these aircraft in the near future. Despite President Biden’s firm refusal last month, the possibility of the Americans delivering aircraft to Ukraine seems to be gaining ground. Although the government in Washington may not be willing to donate F-16s itself, the US could approve another country that uses these aircraft, such as the Netherlands, to send them to Kiev. Of course, the F-16 could be offered alongside another type of aircraft, but consolidation to one type of aircraft would be very useful for long-term training and support, experts believe.

Months of training

As previously stated, to date, Ukraine has not received a solid offer for the Western fighter jets needed to improve its air force capabilities. However, of the available types of aircraft, it seems that one has been consistently considered by Western chancelleries and the government in Kiev – the F-16. According to defence blog War Zone, this is primarily due to its availability, ease of support and extensive logistical infrastructure, ability to train pilots to master it and its highly adaptable multi-role capability.

Recall that Kiev currently uses four types of Soviet-era aircraft, with a small fleet of MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters and Su-24 and Su-25 attack aircraft. Ukraine uses its warplanes for interception missions and to attack Russian positions. Sometimes the aircraft use Western weapons, such as the AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM). However, Russia retains both a numerical and technical advantage in the air.

But how feasible and how long would it take to train pilots not only to fly but also to fight aboard a Made-in-the-USA fighter? Officials in Kiev said they were convinced that their pilots would need about six months to learn to handle an F-16. Air Force spokesman Yuri Yhnat said, „Pilots say it’s not a problem to fly F-16s, they could learn in a few weeks. Fighting with these planes is a very different thing, using all kinds of weapons.”

„Pilots say they could learn in about half a year,” he said. Ihnat said two 12-plane squadrons plus reserves would be enough, at least initially, to help turn the tide against Russian air power. The official added that in addition to pilots, aviation engineers and other specialists would also need training.

According to Ihnat, Ukraine has at least 30 pilots with sufficient English language skills, as well as mechanics, ready to travel to the United States for training if an F-16 deal can be reached.

„It will take a few weeks to learn the first stage of take-off, landing and flying from point A to point B, but to learn how to fight on it, to learn how to use missiles, it will take about six months,” the official said.

Ukraine has already started work in various regions to adapt its airfields to Western aircraft, he said. (https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ukraine-situation-report-kyiv-improving-airfields-anticipating-modern-jets)

The Kiev official added that the F-16 might be the best option for a multi-role fighter to replace the country’s current fleet of warplanes, which are older than modern Ukraine itself.

For their part, Ukrainian pilots and some of the country’s military leaders have said their preferred option is for Kiev to receive second-hand F-16s. The Viper is seen as a realistic choice given all the qualities mentioned earlier. (The official name of the F-16 is the Fighting Falcon, but the Viper is commonly used by its pilots and crews because of its resemblance to a viper.)

„With the F-16, you have a lot of options for different training programs, different electronic countermeasures, different engines, different other components – it’s like Lego,” said the Ukrainian pilot identified as ‘Juice’. „The technical capabilities are very close; in general, I’m not saying the F-16 is better as an aircraft per se, but it may be the most realistic choice for Ukraine, given its capability, availability, affordability and, most importantly, its sustainability.”

War Zone noted that the F-16 is relatively easy to operate safely, so Ukrainian pilots could relatively easily learn to handle it: „In a few months it is possible for an aviator who does not know the aircraft to be safe in an aircraft like the F-16. The systems are easy to operate, the plane is easy to fly and very intuitive to learn. The Viper is an easy transition for an experienced fighter pilot from a pure flying perspective, regardless of the type of aircraft they have flown before.”

„You start the aircraft, push the throttle up, go and fly. The flight control system neutralizes any big mistakes, you really can’t overpower the plane unless you really try to. You can’t easily take it out of controlled flight – there are plenty of cases where the aircraft takes care of you with a level of safety to which even an inefficient operator can fly safely – some of these include Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS). This is the first bridge they (Ukrainian pilots) have to cross.”

The F-16 Basic Course, also known as the B-Course or B-Course, is typically a nine-month process for pilots fresh out of pilot training. In general, the B-Course consists of theory hours, time spent in the simulator and live flights. In addition to Course B, formal training units (FTUs) also run transition courses for pilots with experience in other aircraft – these are usually much shorter than Course B.

In the case of Course B, the first four weeks of theory teach students about F-16 systems and emergency procedures. This is followed by about eight simulator training sessions covering basic instrument flying and hands-on experience of various emergency procedures before pilots move on to four live flights aboard a two-seat F-16D aircraft. This is followed by a first solo mission.

The following flights are designed to build experience before a check flight with an instructor, during which students must meet standards for instrument flying and emergency management. At this point, the new pilot is deemed to be qualified to fly the F-16 in all weather conditions and can switch to night flying with night goggles.

War Zone said student pilots go through an air-to-air phase, which includes basic combat maneuvers, air combat maneuvers and tactical intercepts before entering the air-to-ground phase with low-altitude flight and surface attack tactics. There are approximately 60 flights in progress, split between the transition, air-to-air and air-to-ground phases.

Experts believe that for experienced Ukrainian fighter pilots, a type conversion to the F-16 could resemble a typical FTU transition conversion course, known as TX. This traditionally applies to aircrews moving from one type of fighter to another, or perhaps to senior officers who need to fly multiple types of aircraft. A customized transition course, incorporating training in Western systems and standard operating procedures (SOPs), might be the kind of program a future Ukrainian F-16 pilot coming off the MiG or Suhoi would need.

Not an easy task

„For a pilot with about 500 hours of experience in a Western fighter, but who has never flown the F-16 before – someone who is switching from an F/A-18 Hornet, for example – no breaks, working weekends, etc., it takes 69 days to learn everything to safely operate the Viper in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions,” commented an experienced F-16 instructor.

„That’s assuming they (pilots) speak good English because that’s the language we teach in. Those 69 days include six flights that teach you how to fly the plane and land it; about 15 air-to-air flights, but if they’ve done a lot of that before, it could be reduced to 10; six to nine air-to-ground missions, which would include basic training to use laser-guided bombs (LGB) and GPS-guided attack munitions (JDAM). This would give them a basic understanding, at support pilot level, and that’s assuming they are already familiar with complex weapons such as AIM-120 AMRAAM or advanced medium-range air-to-air missile,” he added.

„It would also require (that pilots) participate in 210 hours of academic study and 10-20 events on simulators. You can’t do that quickly – even doing two simulations a day is 10 consecutive days. You can’t do that quickly. So those 69 days would mean the pilot could safely operate the aircraft in a tactical training environment. Flying under combat conditions is a whole different story… Fighting an Su-35, even an Su-27 in contested airspace – now we’re talking about years of experience. You can’t do that with a brand new guy who’s only seen it all once! You can have all the capabilities of the plane, but if the pilot doesn’t know how to use it properly, then it’s useless. So for a pilot coming off a MiG-29, having to learn a brand-new PVI (pilot-vehicle interface) where everything looks different, using weapons they’ve only ever read about, to give them three months of training and then throw them straight into combat – a hard thing to do!”

The instructor said the move from a MiG-29 to a Western aircraft like the Viper is not a big step in performance, but it is a huge leap in technology – weapons and avionics. „Even after 69 days of intense training, this is just a support pilot qualification, so who will lead the mission? Are you sending it out as a solo plane to try to shoot down anything it catches? To be super effective, you need at least four aircraft, and to lead such an operation you need at least a year of intensive training – then you can crush the opposition.”

The solution offered by the F-16 instructor? „The answer should initially be based on building a new programme based on Ukraine’s specific needs and threat scenarios, and then taking it into combat would require six to 12 months of training. It would still be risky, but that could outweigh the rewards.”

War Zone precinct that many countries operating F-16s choose to send their pilots to the US for initial qualification training. For example, pilots from Poland and Romania conduct F-16 training with the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing unit at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz. It could serve as an ideal site for conversion training for Ukrainian airmen.

Another F-16 pilot commented to War Zone that the U.S. Air Force could easily integrate between 6-12 Ukrainian pilots into an FTU Viper course in a relatively short period of time and provide them with a targeted program that will give them the specific skills they will need in the theater of war.

Finally, experts believe that the desired combat roles for Ukrainian F-16 pilots should be carefully considered. A modern, single-seat, multirole fighter might be easy to handle from a pure piloting perspective, but the numerous mission sets available means a large workload for the pilot. That’s why it could take many years to create a fully capable multi-role fighter squadron – even with a high-performance aircraft type like the F-16.

Conclusion. Even if the United States and its allies were to quickly provide Ukraine with the fighter aircraft requested by the Kiev government, the situation would not change much in the short term. Ukrainian pilots would need months of training to be able to fly combat missions and confront Russian aircraft.

In addition, an efficient Ukrainian air force operating effectively on Western-made aircraft – the most important end goal – is a delicate task that could take years. So far, Western chancellors have not reached an agreement to deliver modern aircraft to Ukraine. Ukrainian pilots are still waiting for the green light from politicians to swap the current Soviet aircraft for Western fighter aircraft and try to radically alter the situation in the theatre of war.

Sources: CNN, ABC, Reuters, Politico, The Drive, Breaking Defense, Air Force Magazine

Urmărește mai jos producțiile video ale G4Media:

Susține-ne activitatea G4Media logo
Donație Paypal recurentă

Donează lunar pentru susținerea proiectului G4Media

Donează prin Transfer Bancar

CONT LEI: RO89RZBR0000060019874867

Deschis la Raiffeisen Bank
Donează prin Patreon


Citește și...